I’ve written on here before about my propensity for being years late to iconic TV shows. It’s almost always things that have been strongly recommended to me before, and it’s usually something I know is right up my alley, and I always eventually end up watching whatever it is and wondering why I didn’t watch it sooner. But I still keep doing it!
I love Westerns, but it took me 13 years to get around to watching Deadwood. I love modern Westerns and crime shows, but it took me about 5 years to get around to watching Justified. (It should feel quite flattered compared to Deadwood.)
I also love espionage thrillers and crime dramas but until recently had never gotten around to watching either The Americans or The Wire. You see where this is going. . . .
I finally watched The Americans because when I was busy reading all those Ben Macintyre books last month, it just seemed pretty fitting to watch a show set during the Cold War and focused on espionage.
I’d always heard a lot of great things about the show and suspected I’d enjoy it. It was widely acclaimed for its writing and acting and its evocative depiction of 1980s DC, and of course, when I got around to finally watching it, I really did love it.
The general premise is intriguing–two KGB sleeper agents masquerade as everyday Americans, raising a family in the DC suburbs, running a thriving travel agency, and performing secret missions for the USSR during the tail end of the Cold War. Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) star as Elizabeth and Philip, the KGB agents.
Isolated from any other fellow Russians beyond their often manipulative handlers and sheltered from news about how things actually are at home, they have an uneasy alliance with each other and sometimes complicated feelings toward the enemy territory they call home.
The Americans is not an easy watch–our protagonists do some pretty awful things over the course of the show–but it is a fascinating deep-dive into espionage (it’s cowritten by a former CIA agent) and balancing a complicated personal and professional life.
It’s also got a wonderful supporting cast. Thanks to the Jennings’ neighbor, FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beemon (Noah Emmerich, The Walking Dead), we get an inside look at American efforts to neutralize the Jennings, led by Richard Thomas (The Waltons), while we also get to see what their KGB colleagues under diplomatic cover in the Rezidentura in the embassy are up to.
I ended up finding the Rezidentura scenes my favorite in the whole show. KGB agents in Cold War dramas tend to be a pretty stereotypical lot, but not in this show. They’re wonderfully and believably human. Their wryly sarcastic boss, Arkady (Lev Gorn), wouldn’t be out of place in a workplace sitcom, as he contends with striving underlings, out-of-touch superiors, and layers of absurd bureaucracy.
The Wire inhabits a very different setting than The Americans—early 2000s Baltimore and the drug trade rather than 1980s espionage in DC—but it has a lot of the same strengths. It’s also not easy to watch. I can’t think of a less feel-good show, to be perfectly honest, though it has some hilarious individual scenes, but it’s a fascinating deep dive into its world that still has a lot of relevance for today in its examinations of class, race, crime, and societal rot in general. Its characters are a pretty morally murky lot, though they’re realistic and believable. The show runners were staunch in their belief that there weren’t any conventional heroes or villains in the story, and they stuck to that through its five-season run.
The Wire is based on the writings of a long-time Baltimore crime reporter (David Simon) and homicide detective/teacher (Ed Simon), and it features a gritty realism that I’ve never really seen in another show. That’s as equally true of any of its myriad variety of city settings, whether it’s the neighborhood street corner, the homicide squad room, the city ports, the boardrooms, the classroom, and the newsroom.
I particularly liked the investigation scenes. A lot of shows have convenient shortcuts to enable their detectives to find the key clue for a case (like magical databases that seem to know everything) but investigators on The Wire spend seasons investigating theirs, doing a lot of thinking, being wrong, and pounding pavement before piecing together what they need to, though that’s not always enough either.
As well written as the show is, like The Americans, it benefits from a tremendous cast, many of whom were unknowns when the show started. Among others, there’s Dominic West as renegade detective Jimmy McNulty, Michael K. Williams as crafty stick-up artist Omar Little, and Idris Elba as businesslike drug dealer Stringer Bell. (How do you go from The Wire to Cats in fifteen years? Inquiring minds want to know.)
I suspect one reason I delay watching a lot of the shows like The Americans or The Wire is I don’t want to be disappointed in them after they’ve been so hyped to me over the years. Not sure when I will learn that sometimes things do live up to their hype, but if you’ve never gotten around to these shows for the same reason, rest assured that they well earn their reputations as some of the finest and most acclaimed TV shows of the past 20 years.
What’s next for me? Well, you see, I really like mob stories, but I’ve never gotten around to The Sopranos. . . .
What have you been watching lately? What’s your favorite TV show? What TV shows that get a lot of buzz do you keep not watching? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on these items or to place them on hold.